As policymakers have shifted focus from pandemic challenges to economic recovery, infrastructure plans are once more being actively discussed, including those relating to energy. Green energy advocates are doubling down on pressure to continue, or even increase, the use of wind, solar power, and electric cars. Left out of the discussion is any serious consideration of the broad environmental and supply-chain implications of renewable energy.
As I explored in a previous paper, “The New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking,” many enthusiasts believe things that are not possible when it comes to the physics of fueling society, not least the magical belief that “clean-tech” energy can echo the velocity of the progress of digital technologies. It cannot.
This paper turns to a different reality: all energy-producing machinery must be fabricated from materials extracted from the earth. No energy system, in short, is actually “renewable,” since all machines require the continual mining and processing of millions of tons of primary materials and the disposal of hardware that inevitably wears out. Compared with hydrocarbons, green machines entail, on average, a 10-fold increase in the quantities of materials extracted and processed to produce the same amount of energy.
Here's the paper by Mark P. Mills: "Mines, Minerals and 'Green' Energy: A Reality Check."
It never seems to occur to the Reality-Based Community that in the real world one must think past "A, therefore B" to include many others letters of the alphabet as the variables pile up. In other words, if you think that by plugging your electric vehicle into a handy wall socket you've just put the fossil fuel and ancillary industries out of business while otherwise continuing your lifestyle and saving money to boot, think again.
As Mills points out, among the reality of "green energy" are:
Building wind turbines and solar panels to generate electricity, as well as batteries to fuel electric vehicles, requires, on average, more than 10 times the quantity of materials, compared with building machines using hydrocarbons to deliver the same amount of energy to society.
A single electric car contains more cobalt than 1,000 smartphone batteries; the blades on a single wind turbine have more plastic than 5 million smartphones; and a solar array that can power one data center uses more glass than 50 million phones.
Replacing hydrocarbons with green machines under current plans—never mind aspirations for far greater expansion—will vastly increase the mining of various critical minerals around the world. For example, a single electric car battery weighing 1,000 pounds requires extracting and processing some 500,000 pounds of materials. Averaged over a battery’s life, each mile of driving an electric car “consumes” five pounds of earth. Using an internal combustion engine consumes about 0.2 pounds of liquids per mile.
Oil, natural gas, and coal are needed to produce the concrete, steel, plastics, and purified minerals used to build green machines. The energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil is used in the processes to fabricate a single battery that can store the equivalent of one barrel of oil.
By 2050, with current plans, the quantity of worn-out solar panels—much of it nonrecyclable—will constitute double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste, along with over 3 million tons per year of unrecyclable plastics from worn-out wind turbine blades. By 2030, more than 10 million tons per year of batteries will become garbage.
Yeah, well, surely they've thought this whole "green" thing, right? Sadly, no. For not only will the "green movement" be hideously expensive and result in no appreciably better ecological ends, the extraction of its necessary materials -- for even unicorns must come from somewhere -- will also cost more and require even more pollution than current fossil fuels do.
For example, replacing the energy output from a single 100-MW natural gas-fired turbine, itself about the size of a residential house (producing enough electricity for 75,000 homes), requires at least 20 wind turbines, each one about the size of the Washington Monument, occupying some 10 square miles of land.
Building those wind machines consumes enormous quantities of conventional materials, including concrete, steel, and fiberglass, along with less common materials, including “rare earth” elements such as dysprosium. A World Bank study noted what every mining engineer knows: “[T]echnologies assumed to populate the clean energy shift … are in fact significantly more material intensive in their composition than current traditional fossil-fuel-based energy supply systems.”
Nothing comes from nothing, and the rare-earth elements and other necessities to build "green energy" machines have to be extracted, just like fossil fuels, only far more expensively. "Wind farms come close to matching hydro dams in material consumption, and solar farms outstrip both," write Mills. "In all three cases, the largest share of the tonnage is found in conventional materials like concrete, steel, and glass. Compared with a natural gas power plant, all three require at least 10 times as many total tons mined, moved, and converted into machines to deliver the same quantity of energy."
Please click on the link at the top to read much, much more on the subject. The short version is those who harbor of prelapsarian vision of "clean and green" energy are not only fooling themselves, but are putting the rest of us at risk while indulging their neo-totalitarian fantasies of streets whose only traffic will be that of little princesses on unicorns.
Instead, as Mills concludes, the future really is going to be all of the above -- minus the unicorns, of course:
Even without subsidies, mandates, and policies that favor green energy, the future for both America and the rest of the world will see many more wind and solar farms and many more electric cars. That will happen precisely because those technologies have matured enough to play significant roles. And given the magnitude of pent-up global demand for energy and energy-using machines and services—especially after the world struggles out of recession—it is a truth, not a slogan, that the world will need “all of the above” in energy supplies.
These realities, combined with the immutable reality that green machines require extraordinary quantities of energy minerals, can perhaps form a common intersection of interests that support an expansion in domestic mining. That would be, after all, of strategic and economic benefit to the United States, regardless of the debates over whether green energy is a replacement for hydrocarbons, which it is not, or a significant new and valuable energy sector, which it most assuredly is.
That Big Green won't even hear of it tells you all you need to know about their real motives.
Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and a foreign correspondent for Time Magazine. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints, and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace and its sequel, The Fiery Angel. His latest book, Last Stands, a study of military history from the Greeks to the present, will be published by St. Martin's Press in December. Follow him on Twitter @dkahanerules